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Virtual Reality: Changing the Way Marketers are Conducting Research

Editor’s Note: My friends at Rutgers sent me this cool infographic asking that I share it with our readers, and although they use a looser definition of virtual reality than I would (today I think of VR solely as an immersive experience using visual and/or haptic augmentation), and I would question the accuracy of some of their numbers and assessment on market penetration, it does a great job of showing how a variety of technologies have been growing across many different use cases to duplicate the “real world” in a technology platform.  Enjoy, and thanks again to Rutgers for sharing this with us!

Market research is going a step up. Instead of simply observing how consumers behave, companies want to know the reasons behind every decision. Virtual reality presents businesses with an opportunity to study their audience in greater depth than ever before in a cost-effective manner. To learn more, checkout this infographic created by Rutgers University’s Online Master in Business Administration program.


Virtual Reality: Changing the Way Marketers are Conducting Research

Investment in Market Research and Virtual Reality

Businesses value market research as an integral part of their success strategy. Billions of dollars are spent every year on marketing, advertising, and public opinion research services. This represents about 10% of the average company budget. These numbers are projected to increase.

Virtual reality is estimated to generate $30 billion in revenues by 2020. Much of this is due to the increasing reliance of market research projects on this technology. A company may pay anywhere from $30,000 to over $1 million just to use VR in a store simulation. Researchers use it for initial store setup, study setup, reporting, and data analysis.

Growth of VR in Market Research

It began more than two decades ago in the early 1990s. The biggest companies of the time including Intel, P&G, ConAgra, Goodyear, and other tried to experiment with different types of store simulation. In 1996, Professor Raymond Burke provided proof that virtual market research provided an accurate prediction of brand market share as well as sensitivity to price by supermarket buyers.

Progress was slow yet steady. By 2007, Kimberly-Clark had developed a 3D store simulation system for business development and marketing research. The following year, Walmart announced plans to use similar technology as a key research tool. Others quickly followed their lead. There are now multiple players in the VR simulation sector including Vision Critical, Decision Insight, Red Dot Square, Advanced Simulations and Fifth Dimension.

Advancements in Technology

Early testing methodologies were rather crude and limited. They presented participants with videos to mimic store walkthroughs but the data was collected in separate interviews and surveys. Nowadays, VR makes the tests truly interactive as participants are presented with simulated shelves that contain the actual products they’ll see at the store.

Each of these products can be inspected, placed in a shopping cart, or returned to the shelf. Data about consumer behavior can thus be collected more accurately. The ubiquity of PC and Internet connectivity makes it easy to create and deploy these virtual environments wherever the participants might be.

Importance of Virtual Reality

It has been found that shoppers make approximately 70% of their brand decisions when they are already inside the store. Some wait until the last minute to decide. Others buy from categories they didn’t intend to purchase from. A lot of factors influence their choices. Accurate simulation is required to conduct reliable research. VR technologies can provide this accuracy.

Some utilize eye tracking software to determine what piques consumer interest. Unilever used this to redesign some of their product packaging and shelf space. Online virtual shopping platforms may be tapped to confirm in-store research. This is what Cadbury did to improve the effectiveness of their shelf layout. Companies can also conduct focus group discussions online to cut their costs in half while enhancing convenience for the participants.

Overall Benefits

The integration of VR into research projects yields excellent results. The initial setup cost may be high and preparations can take long but, once ready, the system can be rapidly deployed and used multiple times. These characteristics make it cheaper and faster in the long run. Testing in a virtual environment also minimizes risks as things can be perfected before making large investments in physical structures.

In a virtual world, multiple scenarios can be tested simultaneously. Stimuli can also be altered without difficulty. Typical obstacles can be eliminated. In fact, the entire environment can be changed in infinite ways. Companies get an unprecedented amount of control over testing. What’s more, all of these can be completed in secret so as not to alert competitors.

Interpreting VR Data

Simulations gather information on shopping behaviors like viewing time, store navigation, category dwell time, product choices, and depth of interaction. Variables like packaging, price, product assortment, and shelf organization can be tweaked to reveal decision-making patterns. Companies can figure out the best combination of these variables to increase sales.

Virtual reality has a long way to go before it can join the ranks of mainstream marketing tools but it is already inching its way closer. Some of the biggest companies in the world are already using it for data gathering, analysis, and product planning. The results have led to improved ROI and better cooperation with retail partners.

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7 responses to “Virtual Reality: Changing the Way Marketers are Conducting Research

  1. Pretty disappointing in that the authors are relying on very old data and an old industry overview study that we chose not to pay to play in, hence our name being left out. ASL started virtual reality in MR, commercializing Ray Burke’s products, back in 1993. We’ve been doing it longer, with more studies, than any of the competitors mentioned. And we’re the only ones to provide validation data that has been “engineered”, at least as of mid-2015.

    There’s no evidence to date that the eye-tracking data from VR is useful or maps to reality. We keep playing with this idea, but it has yet to be proven that there is a match. And matching is critical to VR’ validity. Anybody can build a version, with today’s tools, that simulates shopping. Simulating shopping to generate results that replicate in the real world is another story.

    And how long does a tool have to be around, and how many companies have to use it, before it is considered mainstream? We’ve worked with all the top CPG manufacturers around the world and have been doing so for 23 years.

  2. Very useful summary article thanks to Greenbook and Rutgers U!!. As Steve Needel points out though there is still a lot of work required to validate components of virtual. Eye tracking though appealing does not necessarily correlate with purchasing behaviour and at best seems to be no more than an attention and findability measure, which of themselves are useful.. Heat maps will provide some insight into attention given to overall and components of packaging. At best a kind of tick the box desirable KPI’. Some impressive work is being done by ASL, InContext Solutions and ShopperFACT as other players in the industry. They are strangely absent from this article.

    1. Steve and Chris I agree this is incomplete and perhaps even a bit misleading (and I did feel bad that you were not included Steve, but you’ll notice I included you in the text and in the tags), but I decided to post it despite my reservations simply because it still gave an interesting view of what historically falls into the “VR” bucket, and I think strengthens the case why virtual simulations for research have a bright future, especially as technology improves to provide more scalable and immersive experiences. The science of eye tracking, heat maps, etc.. may still be up in the air, but I am confident it will eventually be settled and they will be useful additions to the toolbox in more use cases as vision-based wearables like Oculus, Gear, Hololens, etc.. come to market, and may even be incorporated into Magic Leap, Kinect, and other visual field technologies.

  3. My disappointment was not with you, Lenny, but with Rutgers folk who didn’t do as much homework as they probably should have. Our experience with immersive technology is that it’s a long way off for the consumer – headgear is still a strange thing for the average person (maybe read as average non-gamer) to adapt to. When I have a shopper for 15 minutes, I don’t want to waste that 15 minutes having them getting adjusted to the mechanical apparatus – it’s a practical concern, not a technology concern.

    One of the big questions we’re working on is whether eye-tracking in VR matches eye-tracking in the real world. Our past experience is that it does not, but we’ll see if newer technologies fix that.

  4. It would be interesting to compare VR findings to ethnographic measurements in a live environment. I think virtual shopping has great potential but would love to see a side by side comparison. Lots of people (me included) didn’t think shoppers would adapt to buying personal items like shoes and clothing online but they did so I think it pays to be inquisitive and stay agnostic with our opinions as technologies developed. Who in the 1960s would ever have thought a computer could fit in a home much less your purse?

  5. Ellen – if you go to our website ( you’ll see our validation data. We’ve compared our results to syndicated data (both store sales and diary/scan) and Ray Burke’s original article compared to diary data. The correlations are very high if you do a number of things correctly. We’ve had 23 years to figure out how to do them correctly.

  6. It’s great to see a post on virtual research, even if it’s a bit incomplete. I agree with Steve that virtual has been around for quite a while, and like other MR tools, continuously being improved. I use virtual with my clients, and I teach it in my classes. As to eye tracking, as with all tools we use, it can provide valuable insight when used properly in combination with other methods. We use it in a in a full scale virtual environment to great benefit in helping clients make effective decisions.

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